It was quite interesting to me to discover firsthand that  different regions of the world not only have their own language and accents,  but also their own body language as well. Of course, I’ve heard for years about various different cultural mannerisms, but actually to see it in action was enlightening.

Of course, in India it was the famous head-bobble. This gesture is a smooth and graceful sliding of the head back and forth on the neck as if the joint between the head and neck is cushioned with ball-bearings. The effect is not really wagging” because the head seems to actually glide sideways back-and-forth on the top of the neck rather than tilting or shaking back-and-forth like a westerner might do. You see this gesture in an exaggerated form in Indian dance where the head seems to alternate side-to-side without any tilt at all.

I can’t reproduce the movement effectively – with me it just looks life I’m wagging my head back and forth, or if I manage to hold my head level, my whole torso gets involved in a kind of whole body wag. Apparently, though, when you grow up in Indian culture, the gesture gets built in from the cradle, so I’m guessing the ball-bearings just kind of grow up within them. Needless to say, short of surgery, I’m not going to develop such smooth, well-oiled movement overnight, though I love to observe it in action.

In Uganda the local head gesture is the chin thrust – a subtle thrusting outward of the lower jaw during conversation. It’s a kind of jaw-pointing maneuver just short of dislocating the lower jaw. It is utilized so quickly and smoothly and is so much a part of the innate communication process that it’s very easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, or, more accurately, not trained
up from childhood with it.

Both of these gestures have a world of meaning behind them, just as our western gestures do, of course. I wonder what a visitor to the U.S. goes through when trying to interpret the typical American’s loud guffaw, complicated hand-shake rituals, high fives, peace signs, shakas, or even the famous one-finger salute. It’s been my personal experience that the very common nod of the head for yes and shake for no, which you would think to be pretty universal, is not even totally “clear communication” in all parts of the U.S.  How much more confusing are the subtler gestures?

More tomorrow on the meanings of the Indian head bobble and the Ugandan chin thrust.